From compassion to fortress Europe — the migration crisis in pictures

Last month, flames began to flicker into the night sky at the Moria refugee camp on Greece’s Lesvos island. Soon after the first sparks, the blaze had engulfed the makeshift shelters at the hilltop military base. The more than 13,000 migrants living there — Moria was designed for only 3,000 — were once again displaced, this time on the continent they’d risked so much to reach.

I began photographing the plight of refugees in Greece in 2015, traveling between the islands which are their entry point to Europe. Thousands arrived from war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Others make the long journey from Iran, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa; often with nothing more than a backpack and the hope of a new life.

Five years ago, places like Moria were just a stopping point, where migrants were screened and fingerprinted. Volunteers and humanitarian workers greeted them with hot tea and blankets to warm them after the treacherous sea journey. On the islands, there was a sense of solidarity and of humanitarianism among the volunteers who stepped in to fill the gap left by governments and institutions.

Slowly at first, and then more quickly, the rest of Europe started to close up, though — leaving many migrants stuck. Whereas the Greek islands had been a starting point for many, or a stopgap until they could find their way further north, it was now home. Temporary became permanent, as many waited years to have their asylum claims heard.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. Camps in Greece locked down or shut altogether, even after restrictions were lifted elsewhere in the country. The NGO Doctors Without Borders argued that there was no public health justification for measures it described as “toxic” and “blatant discrimination.” Now, it said, a different threat was surging: self-harm, violence, depression and other mental health issues in the camps.

Five years on, there are other impacts. Locals, who helped settle refugees, say they are now the forgotten victims. Tourism on Lesvos has collapsed and those who live close to the settlements feel unsafe in their homes. Solidarity has given way to anger. Local people feel their generosity was used against them as an international problem became an acute local one.

Below is a photographic timeline from the start of the migration crisis in 2015 to the present.

A boat with refugees on board approaches the island of Lesvos in December, 2015
A child is wrapped in a blanket by volunteers on the shores of Lesvos in December, 2015,
A rescue worker watches as children are off-loaded from a boat on the coast of Lesvos in December, 2015.
A refugee shows his proposed route north from onboard an overcrowded ferry near Lesvos. Bus companies were competing to sell refugees passage to the border town of Idomeni, the start for many of the “Balkan route” deeper into Europe.
Two friends who had traveled to Iraq rest before boarding a ferry to Athens in June, 2015.
A team from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, patrols the coastline on the island of Chios, Greece, to check for migrants arriving by boat from Turkey. Frontex’s mission is to maintain “safe and well-functioning external borders,” but it has been accused by aid agencies of breaching international refugee conventions.
Refugees gather at the Captain Elias hotel, a derelict two-story building on the outskirts of the city of Kos. Hundreds of migrants found temporary refuge in the hotel, sleeping on the tile floor of its hallways, on shabby mattresses in the lobby or in makeshift tents made from bedsheets on the roof.
Refugees sleep on an overcrowded ferry, for which tickets were fully booked, in December, 2015.
A winding road in Molyvos, on Lesvos, where an old boat holds lifejackets abandoned by refugees once they made landfall.
A group of Iraqi and Syrians refugees are temporarily detained after reaching the coast of Greece after their journey from Turkey ended in Farmakonisi, a tiny, windswept and anonymous island.


Refugees charge their phones at a makeshift power bank in an Idomeni refugee camp along the border between Greece and North Macedonia in February, 2016.
A Syrian refugee is turned away from the Idomeni border for not having his Syrian passport, despite having other identifying documents in February, 2016. Measures became stricter at the border from mid-February after Macedonia began refusing entry to Afghans and imposed stricter document controls on Syrians and Iraqis, slowing the passage of migrants and refugees to a trickle. The move would eventually lead, some weeks later, to the total closure of the border and the EU-Turkey deal. More than 5,000 people were stuck at or near the border when restrictions tightened, and that swelled to over 10,000 when the border eventually shut completely in mid-March.


Children get ready for bed in their tent on Greece’s overcrowded Samos island in November, 2017.
A boy originally from Iraq peeks out from his tent on Samos in December, 2017. Since the camp was overcrowded, and his family was offered only a tiny space in a crowded container, they decided to stay in a tent instead, despite the winter chill.
Children play by the seaside in Samos, a moment of relaxation far away from the chaos of the camp they lived in while waiting for an appointment with the asylum service in December, 2017.
As rain falls on Samos, a refugee waits for authorities to process his documents, so that he can continue onward into Europe.


Ahmed, a refugee from Syria who played professional football there, organizes his departure from Athens. After spending several months in the Greece, he decided to buy a fake document from a smuggler for €2,200 so that he’d be able to fly to Germany. After two failed attempts, the following day he arrived in Berlin and declared to be seeking asylum.


Refugees rush to board a bus for a transfer Athens from Moria camp on Lesvos, following a fire there in October, 2019.
Moria camp refugees enjoy a moment of refreshment at the nearby beach nearby.
A Syrian family at Athens’ Eleonas Refugee Camp, one of the few camps located in the heart of a capital city. Thanks to the work of a group of dedicated volunteers, and the site’s location, asylum-seekers are able to build a work life, find a community and establish a routine while they wait for the ability to travel onward.


Migrants line up at the border between Turkey and Greece at Pazarkule, hoping to cross over to the Greek side after Turkey declared it would no longer honor a 2016 deal with the EU to keep hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers on nits soil in return for aid funds.
Greek forces in the area were accused of using live ammunition and tear gas to stop those attempting to cross.
Migrants keep an eye on the Greek border in March, hoping to enter from Turkey.
A woman bursts into tears at a protest organized in the days following the devastating fire at Moria camp in September.
A birdcage was spared from the fire that destroyed most of the Moria camp …
… as was a cat, wandering through the ruin as some hot spots still smoldered two days later.
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